House of Cards: The Original Bastard

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Britain loves a bastard. And back in 1990, they didn’t come much bigger than Francis Ewan Urquhart MP – protagonist, arch manipulator and chief shit in the BBC’s landmark miniseries House of Cards. The US remake premiers on Netflix on today, but the original remains a classic of British television drama.

Telling as it did the story of a power struggle orchestrated by Chief Whip Urquhart following the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, the original series gained notoriety when the PM really was forced from power during its run. That’s more than mere coincidence.

Coming from someone so close to the seat of power – the series was based on a novel by Michael Dobbs, Chief of Staff for the Conservative Party from 1986 to 1987, and Deputy Chairman from 1994 to 1995 – House of Cards wreaked of import. Even now, its classical illusions and grandiloquence make it all the more potent a snapshot of a time when assumptives were circling the throne of office.

Urquhart himself has often been likened to Shakespeare’s Iago and Richard III; a malcontent, overlooked for power, turning the vices of his masters upon themselves. There’s something of Lady Macbeth and I, Claudius in his
plotting, vicariously power-hungry wife Elizabeth. The pair are particularly suited to the Greco-Roman world of late-Thatcherite politics.

The likening of Cabinet ministers and senior party officials to scheming Roman senators is a heartening indictment of right-wing politics from a man who should know. The fact that the most sympathetic character is a coke-snorting, abusive PR executive should give you some idea of the Grade A shits we’re dealing with.

There’s an Electran affair between Urquhart and Mattie Storin, the junior reporter who becomes an unwitting part of his grand scheme. Actors Ian Richardson and Susannah Harker were 65 and 25 respectively at the time the series first aired – and their increasingly intimate terms get ever more uncomfortable.

You’ll breathe a sigh of relief when Mattie declares “I want to call you daddyâ€? and you realise you never meant to be turned on by this in the first place. Whether the US remake – coming from the same Los Angeles studios that frequently depict such unlikely romances with no hint of self-awareness – has the balls to pull the same trick remains to be seen.

The terrifying thing is that all this only makes Urquhart a more reassuring image of power. As soon as you realise someone with the charisma, the capability and capacity of Francis Urquhart is preferable to the well-intentioned but culpable lot from The Thick of It, you begin to understand a lot about politics.

But would I have wanted him for Prime Minister? You might think that, my dear: I couldn’t possibly comment.

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